The chef recommends the quail with root beer

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With that poached salmon, may we suggest a Diet Sprite, vintage 2005?

Soft-drink and food pairing "is the next frontier of beverage innovation at restaurants," said Donna Shields, a registered dietician working with Coca-Cola Co. "It's a logical extension that we've seen in the spirits business, and the wine industry has done a terrific job with it."

Already, French Laundry, the Napa Valley restaurant touted as "harder to get into than heaven" advises guests on pairing non-alcoholic drinks with seven and nine-course menus, such as a Boyland Bottleworks Root Beer with a mid-course meat like quail, said maitre d' Larry Nadeau.

Most restaurants don't need to hire a soft-drink sommelier just yet, but they may have to if Coca-Cola gets its way. The beverage titan is looking to lift sagging soft-drink sales at restaurants-which buy syrup that accounts for about one-third of the company's annual $6.6 billion in North American revenue-with efforts from food pairings to updating the standard Bacardi & Coke with new cocktails and virgin drinks that better compete with today's swishy martinis and margaritas.

"The fountain business has flattened out," said Bob Goldin, exec VP at Technomic, leading beverage marketers to "expand their solution set beyond choices in their family."

At last week's National Restaurant Association convention, the company sampled several of 100 new alcoholic and virgin concoctions created in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America and flavored syrup maker Monin, including such fanciful offerings as the Sicilian Colada and Caribbean Banana Split.

"Creative mixology is a no-brainer" for Coke, said Robert Plotkin, a beverage consultant and author of 15 books on bar drinks. "It was only a matter of time."

The Atlanta company is suggesting that restaurants bundle beverages with growing takeout orders at casual dining chains, and it`s pushing branded signature drinks in a program that Ms. Shields helped develop. Coke said 40% of consumers are willing to pay more for signature drinks, and that they now make up 90% of beverage orders. If the brand the customer wants is not available, there is a 23% risk of lost beverage sale according to Beverage Digest Factbook 2004, Technomic and an NPD Group CREST study.

BAR CHEFS

The same is true for non-alcohol drinks, which could add significantly to the bottom line, Coke argues, if restaurants prepare and present them with the same panache as cocktails. Adult supper customers at casual dining restaurants ordered beverage alcohol about 40% of the time compared to non-alcoholic beverages (excluding tap water), ordered 60% of the time, according to NPD Group.

Most fine-dining and casual-dining chains have developed sophisticated bar menus and some employ bar-chefs who create signature drinks and suggest food pairings. Their fare is mainly in the alcoholic range, but some chains have begun developing sophisticated "alcohol free" or "zero proof" drinks that are less about removing alcohol than they are about adding variety.

Darden Restaurants has been one to embrace the specialty drink menu. Its Red Lobster serves Sail Away Smoothies; at Bahama Breeze, its 26-drink alcohol-free menu includes a Lemon Breeze made with fresh lemonade and fresh sugar cane; Olive Garden features Bellini Iced Tea, made with tea, raspberry and peach syrup, featured as a pairing for appetizers.

And Applebee's this week begins testing a non-alcoholic beverage menu, according to a beverage industry executive, who said it includes cold and frozen drinks, lemonades, flavored teas and what could become the first energy drink infused signature drink at a national chain. "Everybody is looking at every feasibility," said the executive. "The exploration is huge."

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